Benefits of a Ketogenic Diet for Brain Health and TBI
Have you or a loved one suffered a traumatic brain injury or perhaps you're experiencing signs of cognitive decline?
Do you wonder if a change in diet may help?
Let’s start at the beginning. When someone experiences a traumatic brain injury (TBI), various biological changes take place within the brain. Among them is increased free radical formation in the mitochondria - cell structures that generate energy. These free radicals damage cell membranes which leads to abnormal neuronal signalling.
The changes caused by a brain injury can result in cognitive and motor impairments, epilepsy, increased oxidative stress, DNA damage, and metabolic changes. These metabolic changes include a reduced level of energy (ATP) production in the brain and a reduced ability to use glucose as fuel. Ultimately, this means that the mitochondria in brain cells don’t work as well as they once did, causing extreme fatigue, mental slowness, and cognitive impairment.
A normal, healthy brain can use glucose for energy, but a damaged brain struggles to do so effectively. The brain tries even harder to fulfill the increased demand for energy after a TBI, but glucose supplies are used up quickly, leaving the brain cells that did survive hungry and less-functional.
The neurons that do survive a TBI have also become vulnerable, which can result in long-term deficits. In fact, recent studies indicate that sustaining a traumatic brain injury dramatically increases the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease later on.
So now what? The good news is that dietary therapy can actually help! It can help someone who has had a TBI as well as someone who wants to improve brain function and restore cognition.
What follows is an overview of this dietary therapy - the ketogenic diet, plus what constitutes healthy fats for the brain, and 11 benefits of ketosis for brain health.
The Basics of a Ketogenic Diet
The ketogenic diet was originally designed as a therapeutic plan for people dealing with seizure disorders like epilepsy.
Today, it has evolved to aid other brain disorders, including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, brain cancer, and traumatic brain injuries.
But what is it? The ketogenic diet is a high fat, moderate protein, and very low carb way of eating that mimics the effects of fasting. By eating plenty of high quality fats with little carbohydrates, the body’s metabolism switches to using fat, as opposed to the usual carbohydrates, as a main source of fuel.
Normally, carbohydrates (pasta, grains, starches, fruit, sugars, etc.) are broken down into glucose and used for immediate energy. In a damaged brain, however, this mechanism has been altered, rendering the process less efficient. Since the brain doesn’t process glucose as well, and a fuel source is still required to generate energy, it has to come from a different source - namely ketones.
By restricting carbohydrate intake, the body cannot rely on glucose for energy, so it undergoes a metabolic shift and begins to burn fat for fuel instead. When this fat is broken down into usable energy, ketones or ketone bodies are created.
The term “ketosis” simply refers to being in a state of burning these ketones.
Please keep in mind, that being in nutritional ketosis is far different from being in a state of ketoacidosis.
In ketosis, for optimal brian health, you should aim to consume 60-75% of your calories from fat, 20% from protein, and 5-20% from carbohydrates. If these number scare you, or you have no idea what I’m referring to, come back next week, when I’ll break down the numbers and give you more information about how to follow a keto diet. Can't wait until then message me.
But the bottom line? Cut the carbs and increase the fat. Increase the fat a lot!
Not all Fat is Created Equal
Of course, when we talk about fat on a ketogenic diet, we are referring to good, healthful, quality fats.
First, we must acknowledge that when fat was demonized years ago, it was done so under the guise of profit for big industries that did not have our health in mind. It is now understood that fat is crucial for survival and vital to cell membranes. In fact, our brains are made of 60% fat - maybe that’s why it loves fat so much! To take care of the organ that takes care of us, let’s feed it what it loves!
But beware that not all fat is created equal!
Let’s start with the “good” fat. This comes in many forms from many different sources. Generally, good fats include all saturated and some unsaturated fats found in grass-fed beef, eggs from pasture-raised hens, MCT oil, coconut oil, nuts (almonds, macadamia, pecans, walnuts, etc.), seeds (hemp, sesame, sunflower, etc.), wild fish (salmon, sardines), avocado, avocado oil, olives, extra virgin olive oil, macadamia nut oil, grass-fed butter, ghee, tallow, bacon grease/lard, cacao butter, mayonnaise (homemade), side bacon, pork shoulder, chicken thighs, beef brisket, and steak.
You may have noticed that I failed to mention seed oils here. Polyunsaturated fats like soybean, corn, safflower, canola, and cottonseed oil are too high in omega 6 fatty acids while being too low in omega 3 fatty acids. This unhealthy balance favours inflammation which, as we now know, is bad news. These oils are also highly processed and easily destroyed by light and heat, which causes oxidation and makes them damaging to body tissues.
Now what about the “bad” fat? These are called trans fats and the ones to avoid at all costs. Trans fats should never be consumed, as they have been associated with body-wide inflammation and asthma, can damage memory, and increase the risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and insulin resistance. Trans fats are found in processed foods, and are typically labeled as hydrogenated and partially-hydrogenated oils. They have been artificially created through an industrial process that adds hydrogen to liquid vegetable oils to make them solid at room temperature and more self-stable. Because of this, many restaurants use them for deep frying foods and many processed foods and baked goods contain them.
They include cakes, biscuits, donuts, pizza crusts, cookies, crackers, margarine, and other spreads. Regulating your intake of these damaging trans fats means focusing your diet on fresh vegetables, fruits, and meats - natural choices when on a ketogenic diet.
11 Benefits of a Ketogenic Diet on Brain Health
There are several reasons why the keto diet may be beneficial for someone who has suffered a brain injury.
Though there is conflicting information about which mechanism may be most beneficial, it is likely a combination of factors that make this way of eating a good choice. This is what we know:
The keto diet increases energy - The first step to creating energy is to get fuel inside damaged mitochondria. Unlike glucose, ketone bodies can get into the mitochondria completely intact. This helps the body release and recycle energy faster while using up less oxygen and creating less oxidative stress.
Keto restricts sugar - Sugar is not only toxic to the brain (and body) but also causes inflammation. This is bad news for anyone, but even worse news for someone who already has inflammation in the brain. Keeping sugar intake to a minimum not only prevents more inflammation, but helps keep blood sugar levels stable.
The ketogenic diet is anti-inflammatory - In general, eating keto restricts eating inflammatory foods, which is helpful, as brain injuries also cause inflammation. The foods promoted on keto are natural, whole foods that support the immune system and help the body work as it should.
It is neuro-protective - Certain ketone bodies are neuro-protective when used as an energy source by the brain. Additionally, high fat diets have been shown to protect the brian and reduce the risk of dementia. As TBI increases Alzheimer’s risk, eating a diet that protects the brain from it should be a “no-brainer”.
The brain burns ketones more efficiently than glucose - A more efficient fuel source means brain cells do not have to work as hard so they can end up producing more energy. As reduced energy is a common complaint of brain injury, anything that can increase energy is a good thing!
It is high in low-carb vegetables - These are the exact nutrient-rich foods that a healing body needs to survive and thrive. The multitude of vitamins, minerals, enzymes and nutrients in fresh vegetables are vital to restore supplies used quickly under stress. Another bonus is that they nourish cells at the same time.
The keto diet is rich in antioxidant nutrients - The variety of colourful berries and vegetables abundant in the ketogenic diet are packed with antioxidants that work to reduce oxidative stress and quench free radicals that would otherwise wreck havoc on the brain. Increased oxidants are a sure sign of aging, stroke and neuro-degeneration. Ketones also directly stop the production of these molecules and help break them down.
The keto diet is high in quality fats - It is these quality healthful fats that are required by the brain to function optimally. Certain polyunsaturated fats like EPA and DHA help reduce the production of oxidants and combat inflammation.
For healthy individuals, the keto diet may optimize cognitive function, prevent chronic disease, and aid weight loss - By increasing energy production, reducing inflammation, and increasing oxygen flow to the brain, the brain is better able to function. This results in clearer thoughts, improved memory, and better mood - all helpful in optimizing cognitive function.
Ketosis can reverse may neurological conditions and metabolic disorders - This lowers seizure risk and creates a better environment for neurons to recover and repair themselves. By making the brain even just a little more efficient at producing energy, as what happens when in ketosis, it’s better able to pull glutamate back into cells where it belongs. Too much glutamate floating around outside the cell causes excitotoxicity which contributes to seizures, brain injury, and depression.
Done right, the keto diet reduces neurotoxins - The focus on quality foods on a keto diet means eating organic when possible. The chemicals and pesticides liberally sprayed on conventional produce are proven neurotoxins, so avoiding them is also beneficial to your brian.
These 11 points are reason enough to believe the ketogenic diet may be beneficial for an injured brain. In fact, the negative impacts of the opposing inflammatory and high-sugar Standard American Diet may make recovery much slower and worse.
The ketogenic diet shows promise not only for brain injury victims, but for people suffering from most neurodegenerative disorders, as well. Following a ketogenic plan can improve memory and cognitive function, strengthen the immune system, improve insulin sensitivity, support balanced hormones, and do so much more. However, as with any change in diet or lifestyle, it is always best to check with your doctor or health care provider to see if this diet may be right for you.
If you do decide to give it a go, come back next week for some important considerations about the ketogenic diet including what foods to choose and what foods to lose.
Until then, as always, I’d like to know what you think. Please drop me a line or write a comment below. I’d love to hear from you!